Gaza’s archaeology experts say enclave’s historic treasures saved by ‘irony of history’

When Gazan collector Jawdat Khoudary loaned his treasure trove of artifacts to museums in Europe in 2006, he never imagined they would still be stored in Switzerland

File: Artifacts are on display in the first ever National Museum of Archaeology in Gaza, opened by Jawdat Khoudary, a Palestinian businessman and collector, on July 28, 2008. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
File: Artifacts are on display in the first ever National Museum of Archaeology in Gaza, opened by Jawdat Khoudary, a Palestinian businessman and collector, on July 28, 2008. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Gaza’s ancient Greek site of Anthedon has reportedly been bombed, its “Napoleon’s Palace” destroyed and the only private museum burned down; the war has taken a terrible toll on the rich heritage of the Palestinian territory.

But in a strange twist of fate, some of its greatest historical treasures are safe in a warehouse in Switzerland.

Ironically, it is all thanks to the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt over the past 16 years to prevent the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group from smuggling arms and weapons into the Strip.

Based on satellite images, the UN cultural organization reckons some 41 historic sites have been damaged since the war in the Gaza Strip began after Hamas’s shock onslaught in Israel on October 7.

On the ground, Palestinian archaeologist Fadel al-Otol keeps tabs on the destruction in real-time.

When he has electricity and internet access, photos pour into a WhatsApp group he set up with 40 or so young peers he mobilized to watch over the territory’s array of ancient sites and monuments.

As a teenager in the 1990s, Otol was hired by European archaeological missions before going on to study in Switzerland and at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Fadel al-Otol, a Gazan heritage specialist, stands on the ruins of the ancient Saint Hilarion monastery in al-Zawayda, south of Gaza City, on February 28, 2016. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

“All the archaeological remains in the north have been hit,” he told AFP by phone from Gaza.

Napoleon’s HQ flattened

“Blakhiya (the ancient Greek city of Anthedon) was directly bombed. There’s a huge hole,” said Otol.

He said part of the site, near barracks used by the Hamas terror group where “we hadn’t started excavating,” was hit.

The 13th-century Al-Basha palace in Gaza City’s old town “has been completely destroyed. There was bombing and (then) it was bulldozed.”

“It held hundreds of ancient objects and magnificent sarcophagi,” Otol added, sharing recent photos of the ruins.

Napoleon is said to have based himself in the ochre stone edifice at the disastrous end of his Egyptian campaign in 1799.

The room where the French emperor supposedly slept was full of Byzantine artifacts.

“Our best finds were displayed in the Basha,” Jean-Baptiste Humbert of the French Biblical and Archaeological School in Jerusalem (EBAF) told AFP.

But we know little of their fate, he said. “Did someone remove the objects before blowing the building up?”

Nerves were frayed even further when the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Eli Escusido, posted a video on Instagram of Israeli soldiers surrounded by vases and ancient pottery in the EBAF warehouse in Gaza City.

A picture shows a view of the archaeological site of Saint Hilarion in the center of the Gaza Strip, on June 8, 2022. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Much of what has been unearthed in digs in Gaza was stored either at the Al-Basha museum or the warehouse.

Palestinians quickly accused the army of pillaging. But EBAF archaeologist Rene Elter said he has seen no evidence of “state looting.”

“My colleagues were able to return to the site. The soldiers opened boxes. We don’t know if they took anything,” he told AFP.

However, he added: “Every day when Fadel (al-Otol) calls me, I’m afraid he’ll tell me that one of our colleagues has died or that such and such a site has been destroyed.”

Archaeology is a highly political issue in Israel and the Palestinian territories, with discoveries often used to justify the claims of the two warring peoples.

While Israel has an army of archaeologists who have unearthed an impressive number of ancient treasures, Gaza remains relatively untouched by the trowel despite a rich past stretching back thousands of years.

Ancient crossroads

The only sheltered natural harbor between the Sinai and Lebanon, Gaza has been a crossroads of civilizations for centuries.

A pivot point between Africa and Asia and a hub of the incense trade, it was coveted by the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Ottomans.

A key figure in excavating this glorious past over the last few decades has been Jawdat Khoudary, a Gazan construction magnate and collector.

File: Artifacts are on display in the first ever National Museum of Archaeology in Gaza opend recently by Jawdat Khoudary, a Palestinian businessman and collector, on July 28, 2008. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Gaza, with its “seafront real estate,” had a property boom in the 1990s after the Oslo Peace Accords and the creation of the Palestinian Authority.

When building workers dug up the soil, they came across a plethora of ancient objects. Khoudary amassed a treasure trove of artifacts that he opened up to foreign archaeologists.

Marc-Andre Haldimann, then curator of MAH, Geneva’s art and history museum, couldn’t believe his eyes when he was invited to look around the garden of Khoudary’s mansion in 2004.

“We found ourselves in front of 4,000 objects, including an avenue of Byzantine columns,” he told AFP.

Quickly an idea took shape to organize a major exhibition to highlight Gaza’s past at the MAH, and then to build a museum in the territory itself so that the Palestinians could take ownership of their own heritage.

At the end of 2006, around 260 objects from the Khoudary collection left Gaza for Geneva, with some later going on to be part of another hit show at the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris.

But geopolitics changed along the way. In June 2007, Hamas drove the Palestinian Authority from Gaza, seizing power and launching rocket attacks on Israel that led Israel and Egypt to severely restrict movement in and out of the enclave. As a result, the Gazan artifacts could no longer return home and remained stuck in Geneva, while the archaeological museum project fizzled out.

But Khoudary did not give up hope. He built a museum-hotel called Al-Mathaf — museum in Arabic — on the Mediterranean coast north of Gaza City.

But then came the Israeli ground offensive after the Hamas terror onslaught on October 7, which began in Gaza’s north as the Israel Defense Forces sought to destroy the terror group and rescue the hostages.

 ‘Anything but a black hole’

“Al-Mathaf remained under Israeli control for months,” Khoudary, who fled Gaza for Egypt, told AFP. “As soon as they left, I asked some people to go there to see what state the place was in. I was shocked. Several items were missing and the hall had been set on fire.”

His mansion was also destroyed during fierce fighting in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City.

Members of a Palestinian family look at al-Mathaf hotel, where their relatives are quarantined, due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, in Gaza City on April 15, 2020. (Photo by Mahmud Hams/AFP)

“The Israelis flattened the garden with bulldozers… I don’t know whether objects were buried (by the bulldozers) or whether the marble columns were broken or looted. I can’t find words,” he added.

The Israeli military did not comment on specific sites but has presented evidence of Hamas using civilian structures like cultural heritage sites, government buildings, schools, shelters and hospitals for military purposes.

“Israel maintains its commitments to international law, including by affording the necessary special protections,” the army added in a statement.

While part of Khoudary’s collection has been lost, the treasures held in Switzerland remain intact, saved by the blockade and the red tape that delayed their return.

“There were 106 crates ready to go” for years, said Beatrice Blandin, the MAH museum’s current curator.

Safely far from the war raging in Gaza, “the objects are in good condition,” she added. “We restored some of the bronze pieces that were slightly corroded and repacked everything.

“We just had to be sure the convoy would not be blocked,” she told AFP. “We were waiting for that green light.”

But with any return impossible for the moment, Blandin said “discussions are underway” for a new Gaza exhibition in Switzerland.

Khoudary is excited by the idea.

“The most important collection of objects on the history of Gaza is in Geneva. If there is a new show, it will allow the whole world to learn about our history,” he told AFP from Cairo.

“It’s an irony of history,” said Haldimann, who is trying to get his friend Fadel al-Otol safely out of Gaza.

“A new Gaza exhibition would show once again that Gaza… is anything but a black hole.”

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